Who's got their six?

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For a city used to gridlock, it happened pretty quickly. Just days after the inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) verified that the department's Phoenix Health System had dropped more than 1,700 vets from the official waiting list and left them untreated for months, President Obama accepted the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

It was a relief to see the government react promptly. Our veterans certainly deserve much better. But after-the-fact head-rolling is not enough. Washington must make certain that veterans receive timely, high-quality medical care. Moreover, policy makers must make sure that tomorrow's veterans — today's active-duty troops — are not being made to face unnecessary risks as they complete their terms of service.

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Supporting the troops does not start when they return from war. It must start from the moment they decide to join. Their decision to risk all for our country requires that the military train and equip them in the best possible manner to limit the risks they face in battle.

But the government is failing our servicemen and servicewomen on this most basic responsibility. As the administration has stated, the readiness of our troops has been severely diminished. In addition, weapons systems that would either give or maintain the qualitative fighting edge that reduces the risks faced by our armed services are no longer being purchased or are being outright retired.

While not solely a budget problem, the current situation is a result of both parties consistently ducking tough fiscal choices on entitlement programs and, instead, cutting defense spending. By passing the Budget Control Act and imposing sequestration cuts that fall disproportionately on military spending, lawmakers in both parties have increased risks for our service personnel.

First and foremost, by imposing an arbitrary budget top line, the Budget Control Act broke the linkage between the defense budget and national security and military capability requirements. The military budget process is now treated like a math problem, not a careful analysis of how our troop strength and fighting capabilities match up against rigorous threat assessments.

Secondly, the original idea of sequestration was that it would be so devastating to our military that it would drive Congress to compromise. Now, whether through self-delusion, convenience, apathy or some combination of the three, lawmakers accept sequestration as reality, despite having known better just a few years ago.

That is not to say that Congress is entirely to blame. The White House has held the military budget hostage to increased spending for domestic programs. This position, pitted against the fiscal hawks in Congress, has led to a deadlock — one where the military must deal with the consequences without much in the way of strategic guidance from either end of Pennsylvania Avenue.  

Given the situation, the Department of Defense has done a considerable job trying to make ends meet. Still, it has fallen short. Cutting civilian and troop levels, and slowing acquisitions, are short-term budget band-aids that make the military less healthy in the long run. The department must start undertaking major reforms that will create significant cost savings over the long haul. For example, the Pentagon must rationalize its increasingly extravagant entitlement programs, while innovating on more effective and lower cost solutions to things like its enterprise IT systems.

Politics and politicians have led our military to a state of lowered readiness and degraded capabilities. As a direct result, our troops will face unnecessarily greater risks in the future. The U.S. government has proven that, when necessary, it can respond appropriately to the needs of those who risk their all for our country. Perhaps all that is needed is a public reminder of what it really takes to support the troops.

Salmon is the senior policy analyst for Defense Budgeting in the Heritage Foundation's Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy.  

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